‘How much concern can I show you?’: Coughlin and J.P.P. on injuries and ‘fun’
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.—It was time for Tom Coughlin’s daily session with reporters, which meant it was time to talk about injuries.
That’s the nature of covering football between Sundays: Nothing actually happens, there’s no news, except for Player X’s hamstring is responding well to treatment but Player Y’s knee is not, which in turn spawns stories about who will take Player Y’s place on Sunday, and whether the home team will simply plug in a replacement or realign their strategy to account for Player Y’s absence, and if the opposing team is equipped to exploit this weakness.
On and on this goes until Sunday’s game, whose outcome will probably hinge on something that has nothing to do with Player Y, and from which, invariably, will arise new injuries. The war of attrition grinds on.
The Giants have had their fair share of injury issues this year. Coughlin, with a blue cap, Giants windbreaker, white sneakers, and veiny calves, ticked off the list: Nine key players sat out Thursday’s practice with injuries, although most of them would probably play. One who won’t play is star wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, whose name was left out of Coughlin’s debrief.
“What about Nicks?” asked the Star-Ledger’s hard-working Jenny Vrentas.
“What about him?” Coughlin shot back brusquely.
Up to that point he had been upbeat, at least relative to his normal dour cordiality. But the subject of Nicks was grave enough to spoil the mood. On Monday, when asked just how concerned he was about Nicks’s knee, he responded with a rhetorical “How much concern can I show you?”
Nicks’ health is a sore topic for Coughlin, one that he’d prefer to talk about in as little detail as possible.
Ralph Vacchiano of the Daily News, poking for specifics, asked, “Do you have any information of what’s going on with the knee?”
“No,” Coughlin responded, and then referred Vacchiano to what the minimalistic injury report has already told him: “Knee.”
LOQUACIOUS SAFETY ANTREL ROLLE WAS AMONG the Giants who didn’t practice; he’s still suffering the aftereffects of banging his knee into a sideline cameraman’s lens two weeks ago, which seems like an instructive microcosm for how much more the N.F.L. values its millions of television viewers that night than the guys playing the game.
Rolle likes to talk, colorfully and continuously. If he ever went to therapy, he’d talk from the moment he hit the couch until the therapist said, “Time’s up.” But he’s adopting a different tone with reporters at his locker. He’s hewing to a hopeful mantra.
Reporter: How’s your knee?
Rolle: I’ll be good come Sunday.
Reporter: Was there swelling yesterday, is that why you –
Rolle: I’ll be good on Sunday.
Reporter: No matter how many times I ask you about your knee that’s gonna be y—
Rolle: I’ll be good on Sunday.
Reporter: You gonna be good on Sunday?
Rolle: I’ll be good on Sunday.
The importance of Rolle to be good on Sunday is doubly important because of the knee injury to fellow starting safety Kenny Phillips, who will likely miss several weeks. If Rolle doesn’t play, the Giants would be stuck with two offseason scrap-heap signings as starters: Veteran Stevie Brown, who played encouragingly in extended action against Philadelphia after Phillips’ injury; and talented reclamation project Will Hill, the former North Jersey prep star turned cautionary tale about the Molotov cocktail of immaturity, the charmed life of a college athlete, and Twitter.
There’s also second-year-man Tyler Sash, a late-round draft pick who contributed minimally last year before being suspended for four games this year for using Adderall. Adderall isn’t even a banned substance, but those who use it must fill out proper paperwork, which Sash failed to do.
“It’s awesome,” Sash told me of being back. He speaks slowly but with a searching intensity. “To be able to play football. With my own team? Instead of...”
Here he trailed off a bit, momentarily contemplating the vast difference in self-image between the two sides of the razor-thin line walked by marginal players like himself.
“Running around on a practice field by myself.”
It’s a glum image: Sash back in his hometown in Oskaloosa, Iowa, banished from the bright lights, big city because of a paperwork snafu, working out for a call that might never come. Was it really by himself?
“I mean, one of my buddies threw me the football.”
In New York, he was a mini-corporation like all the rest of his teammates. In Oskaloosa, he was just a guy with a buddy who did him a favor.
On the other side of the locker room is cornerback Corey Webster. Webster’s on the other end of the profession from Sash: In 2008, after a breakout season in which he was one of the very best cornerbacks in the league, he signed a $44 million contract, which runs through next season.
He has mostly justified the contract, especially last year, during which he was one of the league’s better cornerbacks (20th, according to Pro Football Focus’s rankings and 14th against the pass by Football Outsiders).
But this year has been a struggle: He was beaten for a touchdown last week for the second time this year. According to Pro Football Focus stats, quarterbacks are completing 72.7 percent of passes thrown in his direction for an average of 21 yards, compared to 54.6 and 12.6 last year. Two games ago, he suffered a broken hand, which he’s been playing through. He also tweaked his hamstring last Friday, which he played through during Sunday’s game but which compelled him to miss Wednesday and yesterday’s practice.
When a reporter asked if his hamstring took his mind off his hand, he lit up, in recognition of that peculiar law of nature stating that a second injury cancels the first one out rather than compounding it.
“It did, it did, it did!” he said, and the twelve or so reporters surrounding him laughed. It wasn’t so much funny as it was a momentary relief from the baseline tension that underlies these post-practice locker room sessions in particular, and athlete-reporter interactions in general.
He added, sunnily, that he’s performing normal tasks with his left hand like eating and taking notes, “So I’ll just be a little better when I get back.”
Webster was wearing a navy blue hat with a graffiti-ish “eighty-eight” written across it. On first glance, I thought this might have to do with Michael Irvin, former star receiver of the Dallas Cowboys, who wore number 88 on a uniform with similar colors.
But Webster quickly disabused me.
“Oh, ‘Dream’ took care of me,” he said, referring to Hakeem Nicks, who wears number 88 and whose nickname is Dream, and who, Webster mentions, has a contract with New Era.
Then I remembered the ads in the subways featuring Nicks in a New Era Giants hat. It’s Nicks’ first major marketing endeavor, and it’s a good fit: The ad campaign makes use of Nicks’s understated suaveness, qualities similar to those he possesses as a player.
"THE SACKS ARE GONNA COME, MAN," JASON PIERRE-PAUL said in response to one reporter’s question, although there were at least 15 of them in the semi-circle around his locker.
Pierre-Paul has just 1.5 sacks this year, which is well off the pace from the 16.5 he had last year. This has spawned some “What’s wrong with JPP?” speculation, but the fact is there’s nothing wrong with him. His season looks much better when looking at quarterback hurries: His 13 hurries put him on pace for 52, compared to 39 last year.
Still, because the best of the Giants’ three star pass-rushing defensive ends, Pierre-Paul has become the focal point for somewhat valid but still overblown concern about that facet.
The Giants have 8 sacks, which is slightly below the league average of 9.2; their pace of 32 sacks is well off from last year’s 48. But it’s not so bad: The Giants’ sack percentage, which adjusts for the number of opponent drop-backs, is 6.3 percent – that’s better than the league average of 6.2, though still off the pace from last year’s 7.5.
Also, as Philadelphia showed last Sunday, opponents are actively strategizing to counteract the pass rush by relying on short drop-backs. This neutralizes the pass rush, but it also limits an offense, which means that by the pure threat of its existence the pass rush has been a bigger factor than the numbers indicate.
Despite this, and also the fact that we’re only four games into the season, the pass rush has been cited as a shortcoming of the 2012 Giants, which means that Pierre-Paul is responsible for explaining it to the pack at his locker.
He zig-zagged around for a bit, touching on themes like frustration, the unpredictable nature of sacks, and the fact that it’s only week five. Then he gave the pack what it wanted: “Like I say, I’mma go out there having fun, like I had last year. I haven’t been having fun this year.”
Pierre-Paul added, in so many words, that the high expectations he faces this year have taken away some of last year’s spontaneous joy. Then he said, “I don’t wanna say it’s not fun, I’m just saying, like, I’m not having that fun I used to. I just gotta go out there, like I said, and just run around like a little kid. Just be happy that your out there and go out there and make plays and stuff. You know what I’m saying?”
(Judging by the physiques of most of us surrounding him, no, we didn’t know what he was saying.)
“I don’t have that energy like I had last year. And that goes for the other guys too," he said. "You can see it in their eyes that they’re not having fun with the game.”
Looked at as a glimpse into the emotional ebbs and flows of a young man for whom the frenzied excitement of success and superstardom has waned, this is an interesting story. But it shouldn’t be passed off as any insight into why the Giants’ pass rush has been disappointing. Any thought that Pierre-Paul isn’t quite giving his all this year should be dismissed by his dominant run defense.
I asked him if he considers himself better against the run or the pass.
“I consider myself as stopping the run better. Then a pass rusher,” he said.
What makes you better at stopping the run?
“I’m a big guy,” he replied, stating the obvious, and the pack of mostly smaller guys laughed.
Steve Serby of the New York Post picked up the “fun” theme again, peppering Pierre-Paul with questions. By this point, Pierre-Paul had realized that he’d probably said enough on the potential flashpoint topic and didn't want to risk saying any more.
“You ask a lot of questions, man,” he gently chided Serby. Then they bantered back and forth for a minute: Pierre-Paul expressed concern that Serby would take his words out of context and blow them out of proportion, and Serby assured him that he wouldn’t.
“You’ll put like, ‘Jason Pierre-Paul: The D-Line Sucks,’” Pierre-Paul said.
The actual headline of Serby’s piece is much more benign.
OVER TO JUSTIN TUCK'S LOCKER, WHERE reporters revisited Tuck’s statement after the Eagles game that the Giants defense was “gun-shy” because of the absence of Phillips.
Tuck said that “without getting too technical,” there are some things a defense is inhibited from doing “if you don’t have a ‘Trel and you don’t have a KP back there. And I’ll just leave it at that.”
Poking for specifics, Vrentas said, “Well you can get technical, and we wouldn’t mind.”
To this, Tuck, adopting a quasi-mock-grouchiness that his status as the wise man of the defense affords him, shot back, “I don’t feel like it. I’m tired. I’m actually trying to end this interview. I hate talking about sacks and all that other crap.”
The reporters laughed.
While Pierre-Paul’s play has been just fine, Tuck’s, by the numbers alone, is a little more disconcerting: He has no sacks and just three quarterback hurries.
But he doesn’t seem particularly worried: “It’s a young season, we’ll figure it out,” he said.
Tuck knows that pass rushing fortunes can turn on a dime. Last year, he battled injuries through much the regular season, amassing just three sacks and 14 hurries through the first 14 games. Then, after the Giants put themselves in a position where they could not lose another game, Tuck sprang to life, with 5.5 sacks and 20 pressures in the team’s final six games (including the playoffs).
As for the “fun” stuff? The sagacious Tuck thinks it’s a symptom of the lack of sacks and not a cause.
“We haven’t played the way we’re capable of playing, and therefore haven’t had the same amount of fun,” he said.